Hustvedt’s inventive portrait of the artist
SIRI Hustvedt’s sixth novel arrives like a fully formed new addition to a family, the latest in a line of siblings all blessed with simultaneously unique and unifying features. All the recognisable features are present and correct: a multilayered narrative, themes of identity and perception, various perspectives (both sharpeyed and blinkered), traumas and anxieties, and meditations on, or infusions of, visual art, philosophy and literature.
Yet while The Blazing World resembles the novels that preceded it, there is no evidence of its author resting on her laurels and churning out facsimile fiction. In fact, Hustvedt has upped the stakes by taking those familiar and dependable constituents and refiguring or reexamining them.
Readers expecting a straight-out page-turner along the lines of Hustvedt’s 2003 bestseller What I Loved may be disappointed. The Blazing World is less conventional and far more intricate, crammed with postmodern trickery and linguistic frills that keep us engaged and stimulated but also baffled.
This is a book within a book. In an ‘‘editor’s introduction’’, a (fictional) professor of aesthetics named IV Hess explains how artist Harriet Burden duped the art world by using three men
March 29-30, 2014 as fronts for her creative work. Her project Maskings, the great swansong before her death, was a ploy intended “not only to expose the anti-female bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception’’.
Hess’s “book’’ (which is Hustvedt’s novel) is a compendium of documents relating to Burden that, taken as a whole, attempt to get to the heart of the hoax and shine a much-needed light on a reclusive and brilliant mind.
Hess’s main source material is the collection of 24 private journals Burden left behind, stuffed full of biographical thoughts and deeds and interlarded with notes on favourite writers and thinkers. Hess pads this out with the fruits of her sleuth-work: interview transcripts of family and friends, written statements and reviews from biographers, critics and fellow artists.
We proceed semi-chronologically and witness two Burdens during two phases. In the first, after the death of her art-dealer husband, she retires from “that incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule’’ that is the Manhattan art world, shunning “the whosits and whatsits, the duke and duchesses of moolah, the muckety-mucks with acquired tastes’’.
In the second, she reinvents herself by emerging from her grief, taking a lover and putting into play her “pseudonymous project’’.
Hustvedt’s novel is essentially a collage of fragmented texts and deliberately conjoining and conflicting ideas. Its motley outlooks enable us to see Burden from various angles.
Best friend Rachel presents Burden at various stages of her life — schoolgirl, mother, artist — offering a psychological evaluation , whereas late-life companion Bruno discusses their relationship. Daughter Maisie expounds on the documentary she has made, her mother the subject, while one of Burden’s “masks’’, the colourful Phineas Q.•Eldridge, describes how “Harry and I made the perfect drag couple’’.
But as we take in each point of view, we also find ourselves on our toes. The more character assessments we get, the more Burdens sprout up, each more slippery than the last. A suspicion emerges that Burden, a self-proclaimed “trickster’’, has fictionalised her notebooks, her recorded truth being merely “her own wishful version of events’’.
Does she hoodwink the reader with her prose the same way she has duped the art world with her art? “There is no clear border between remembering and imagining,’’ Hustvedt tells us in The Sorrows of an American (2008), and the same applies here.
This is a novel that conceals and reveals in equal measure. Characters hide behind aliases (the Crawler, the Barometer) or go by names so daft they ought to be nicknames (Sweet Autumn Pinkney, April Rain). The third artist Burden employs to show her work is a talented enfant terrible known only as Rune.
However, there are instances where Hustvedt is too slick for her own good. We hear that Burden has left clues in her journals — each one labelled with a letter of the alphabet — but unearthing them means wading through dream sequences, acrostics, quotes and footnotes, and Burden’s son’s desperately bad writing.
Hess admits to being “fascinated, provoked, and frustrated’’ by the notebooks, an opinion we can’t help but share. When there is mention of “obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt’’ the book loses its resemblance to Nabokov’s elaborate meta-fiction Pale Fire and instead feels as if it is recycling the stock-in-trade tropes of Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster.
The Blazing World works best when Hustvedt gets the balance right and manages to shroud Burden in tantalising mystery rather than smother her in a fug of opacity. It is here that we can appreciate the novel as an intoxicating “anthology of voices’’, an inventive portrait of the artist and a searing critique of the way we see and judge.
Malcolm Forbes is a Berlin-based writer and critic.